Monday, September 14, 2009

Thank you, Lisa Cheney

A Kindermusik colleague, Lisa Cheney from the USA, has inspired me to get myself in gear and work out 'followers' and 'following' on blogger. Honour where honour is due... thanks!

And check out Lisa's blog "Kindermusik with Friends", she is an interesting woman and a bit of a dynamo.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Which problem are you solving?

In a book about permaculture, I once read a story of a gardener who was being driven to distraction by the slugs & snails eating his crop.  He tried everything he could think of, and then went to his mentor in despair.  The mentor looked carefully around at his garden, then said: "Your problem is not an oversupply of snails, its an under-supply of ducks".  The gardener bought a couple of ducks, and they ate the snails and slugs (and incidentally, fertilized the garden). The problem was solved, but only when the correct problem was identified.

Lately, I have been charmed – and humbled – by the many opportunities life affords us, of checking our assumptions about what the problem is.

Is the problem that you're being difficult? Or is that I'm being controlling?

Is the problem that other people won't give me what I need? Or is the problem that I don't action on my own behalf?

Is the problem that other people can be so inconsiderate? Or is the problem that I am not maintaining my own boundaries, and saying "No" when appropriate?

Is the problem that I don't have "enough" money? Or is the problem that I resist following my dreams due to false or outdated information and beliefs?

Is the problem that everyone is blaming me for what went wrong? Or is the problem that I secretly feel guilty, and so I'm hearing the feedback as negative and blaming?

There's a knack to seeing what is going on from a different angle, but its one we can all develop.  I once watched a child trying to write, resting their notebook on the seat of a chair.  "This pen doesn't work!" she cried.  I looked closely at what she was doing, and said, "The pen is fine, your book has slipped out and is hanging off the end of the chair seat, and so the pen hasn't got anything to push against."  I slid the book back on the chair, and this time the pen worked.  I wonder how many pens that child would have gone through, before she saw what was really going on?  Chances are, the more times the pen "didn't work", the more frustrated she would be.  So now whenever I get really frustrated by a problem, I try to stop myself and ask: 

"What am I not seeing here?"  Am I seeing too many slugs, or not enough ducks?  Am I seeing a broken pen, or a bad writing surface?

Think about a problem in your life that frustrates you:  could there be something you are not seeing?

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Tonka Truck Theory of Parenting

I developed this theory many years ago, before I began regularly working with families.  No matter how hard a parent tries, they're bound to get something wrong. It's inevitable, and that can be, kind of, OK.

Nothing I have learned since has disproved it.
When you were a child, you wanted a Tonka Truck.  
    But for some reason your parents never bought you a Tonka Truck.  
         So now you are a parent, and whatever else your child may or may not have, 
              you will buy her a Tonka Truck.

But your child does not want a Tonka Truck.
Your child wants a rocking horse.
But for some reason you have never bought your child a rocking horse.
So now your child is an adult, and whatever else her child may or may not have,
She will buy her child a rocking horse.

But her child does not want a rocking horse.
    Her child wants a puppy.  
        But for some reason he has never bought his child a puppy.  
             So now his child is an adult, and whatever else his child may or may not have,
                 He will buy his child a puppy.

But his child does not want a puppy.
His child wants a Tonka Truck.

So there it is, my contribution to the social sciences.  By all means pass it on, but remember to say where you heard it:  I'd quite like it to go down to history as Spencer's Theory.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Yesterday was Mother's Day* which seems a fitting moment to pay tribute.  I'm not a mother myself, as the title of this blog announces, but I respect and admire both the task, and the women who take it on.  I know it comes with in-built positive feedback - children tend to love you back.  Still, it's not easy, even with the plus of loving your kids to distraction.

Our society has a lot of baggage about mothers. In historical terms, this is a new development. Every time the role of Mother has changed, we've tended to keep all the old tasks, and superimpose new ones on it as well.  This creates enormous, and sometimes conflicting, expectations.  It's a job that comes with shoes no single human being can possibly fill, which means every mother knows about, or learns about Guilt.  It's a real catch-22.

It shouldn't surprise us, with the current boom in assisted reproduction, that the first job of women for most of history was to try to become a mother.  (There was also the other job of trying not to become a mother unless you were married).  Carrying to term was a challenge. Read your history and its astonishing how ordinary having had two or three wives was.  Since there was no divorce, it's not hard to work out what happened to them.

The second job of women from the mists of time up until very recently, was to keep as many of your children alive until adult-hood, as possible.  Any woman who managed that - and she had to have a lot of luck on her side to do that - was a prize one, class-A mother.  Today, child mortality is so low, you don't even get a "pass" mark for getting the child to 21.

The third job was to pound some basic manners into the children.  And I do mean 'pound'. Manners included respect for your parents' authority in all matters. Until the early 1900s, even many adults, especially women, found it almost impossible to go against the orders of their parents.  [Yes, ladies, take a moment for a blissful fantasy.]  As teenagers had not yet been invented, most of the challenges of raising adolescents were many centuries in the future.  If you teen was giving you trouble, you locked them up or beat them.  Or put them out as apprentices.

I find it interesting that a concern with toilet-training isn't very high on the list until fairly recently.  Before that, children had nappies until they worked out what to do. Since those nappies weren't going to be changed near as often as modern hygeine requires - there were no washing machines back then - there was a built-in incentive.  And peer pressure too, from the many children that were around.

Early walking wasn't a feature either - swaddling was all the go for most of history.  If you're working in the fields, or around open fires (ie. the kitchen) its' better all round if the children don't move around too much until they have learned what "no" means.

In fact it's only within the last hundred years (or so) that the majority of women have had time to 'parent' in the way we now understand it.  Prior to that, anyone who wasn't middle class (or higher) was frankly too busy keeping people alive (ie. fed and clean) to worry over the children reaching their developmental potential.  And women of the middle class (or higher) expected the nurse to take care of most of the actual physical care.

Even in the 50s, it was quite common for mothers to encourage the children over about 5 to go outside for most of the day.  I have heard several stories of parents who would lock the doors so the kids couldn't get back in before dark!  That way the mother could do all her housework and possibly even sneak a little nap.

The Victorians came up with the idea of the 'angel in the house', the woman who is spiritually and morally superior, and so exerts a benign influence over her children's development.  Such women were not encouraged to spend more than about half an hour per day with the children, as it would never do to give vent to feelings of either irritation and displeasure on the one hand, or of "too much" affection and indulgence on the other.  The Victorian mother was told bluntly to leave the messy tasks to the Nanny, as it's impossible to stay serene and ideal if you're doing all of that.

Today's Mother is stuck with all of this & MORE.  She has to be an angel, and be serene and graceful and gracious, she has to adore her children (at all times) with a fierce and biased love, but she must be aware of their shortcomings and not brag on about them to others.  She must be with her children as often as they desire/require, yet make time for herself, and keep her romantic relationship alive and zinging along. She must have a lovely house, and cook wholesome nutritious food for her children, and work outside the house both to contribute income and to satisfy her own intellectual and professional needs.  She must attend all her children's MANY sporting activities, and cheer relentlessly from the sidelines, concealing any slight boredom she might reasonably feel, and equally must avoid being a pushy parent.  She must give her children space and time to 'just be kids' without neglecting a single opportunity to explore a new interest, nurture a budding talent or 'socialise' successfully with their peer group, and she must ensure the children are appropriately supervised at all times.

All this in a society where supermarkets put lollies (candies) at child-eye height in the checkout and then everybody glares at you when the child has a melt-down temper tantrum because you said, "No".  (Or glares at you for allowing your child to eat all that sugar.) 

Within the job description exist warm, wonderful, intelligent and above all tired women, who daily battle against untold obstacles to raise their children, and mostly keep their tempers and their senses of humour while doing so.

Here's to you.

*unless you're in Great Britain.  They're traditionalists and stick to Mothering Sunday.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A perfect pair of pants

O happy day!  

Last November, while in the US, I bought a pair of knit pants.  They were on sale and I thought they'd be comfy for the flight home.  They were.  They only come in black or charcoal grey, and they had a high waist which I wasn't so sure about.  Turns out they look elegant with my various shirts and sweaters - so much so I usually get complimented - and are the best things to wear at gym, lazing around the house, shopping (easy to get on and off in cramped changing rooms) etc.  They're also warm in winter, and cool in summer, as they're a rayon spandex mix. They dry easily overnight, and don't need ironing.

So, you'll realise I've been kicking myself ever since that I didn't buy more.  My husband said, "see if you can get more, then." But I didn't want to face the disappointment.

Today, however, I'm trying to avoid doing my taxes.  I got onto the web and found the company who makes them - J Jill.  They do international deliveries.  Better yet, my dream pants are still available!  They are called the "wherever" pant.  I have them in the wide leg version, but they come in straight leg and cropped versions too.

I plan to travel again, later in the year, and these are just the best thing to take with you on the go.

Few things in this life approach perfection.  These pants do (for me).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

5 Things I'm feeling Opinionated About

Because I don't have time to craft a post... I'm behind on my paid writing, so this is a quick one for you.

1. Swine Flu
I think swine flu is dangerous, and the governments were right to worry. I've read a lot about the 1918 influenza pandemic, and we don't ever want to see another one of those. This flu was more dangerous than bird flu, because it passes easily person-person, rather than needing a live bird as the link.  It's because the governments got aggressive that it has been contained (more or less).

That said, I think the media have shamelessly milked it for all it was worth, causing needless anguish in the process.  And I think they guy who wore a paper facemask to the Logies last night was poseur.

2. Recreational Shopping with <12s
Usually, just don't.  Most children don't browse.  They don't "do" recreational shopping.

Children like to go shopping if you are going to let them browse until they find something they want, then buy it for them, then take them straight home again.  A visit to Maccas/icecream/Krispy-Kreme may be demanded and (somewhat) enjoyed, but will then render the children overstimulated and sugar-high for the next 24 hours.

If you must take your child with you when you go shopping, think of it like the perfect 3 year old's party:  there is a game, there is cake, then we go home within the hour.

Children can't filter the way adults can, when kids get glassy eyed and bratty, they are not acting up, they are simply responding to the environment they are in.  I laugh at parents who threaten:  "If you don't behave, we're going home RIGHT NOW!" and you can see the child look all hopeful...

Under 7s find shopping difficult, because they're naturally programmed to want to touch things dangled at eye height - and you won't want them too.  There is very little good here.

3. Faux-Environmentalism
I'm no expert, but I feel that some of the fashionably "green" products are... dodgy.  I have recently read articles encouraging the use of plant dyes, for example.  I had done a natural dye course, and while the dyes themselves are natural, if you want them to have any light-fastness at all (ie not fade within a couple of weeks) you have to use a mordant.  Mordants are all sufficiently toxic, that except for vinegar, you can't legally pour the leftovers down the drain - they need to be removed by a chemical waste specialist.  

I also have my doubts about using candles for earth hour.  Most decorative candles aren't beeswax, and where they are, they were possibly shipped in from China, thus negating the green cred effect.  The ones made from stearate are a by-product of petrol, basically.  The soy candles are very nice, but I suspect that the turning a soybean into wax process may be more consumptive than I would like.

I know it's the latest fashion, but do your homework or just don't bother.

4.  Bubble Skirts
Of all the unlikely fashion resurrections.  I was so unfashionable in 1984, that I cut the lining out of my only bubble dress, so it was a 'normal' dress.  The noughties incarnation has a daggy limp little bubble that reminds me of nothing so much as the way your cossie daks looked when filled with sand after you were dumped by a wave at the beach.

5.  Popular Assumptions About the Overweight
Today I read a spray arguing against expert medical opinion that we have had no success in fighting the battle of the bulge, and governments should focus their energies on encouraging people to not get fat in the first place.  The (average weight) journalist encouraged the overweight to "have a bit of willpower" and eat less.  And not use the excuse that "we don't have time."

In spite of what the latest fad diet, or tv-reality show may tell her (and you), there is solid evidence that once people gain an ample amount of weight, they are going to have a really difficult time getting rid of it.  Or the reality tv-show would not exist, among other things.

In fact, the low calorie diet + exercise is not proven to work for this population, however much it may help the "mums trying to lose a bit of baby podge" community.

Which is why I think the personal trainer from Northcote who is force feeding himself junk food in order to "understand" his overweight clients is an idiot.

Phew! Glad I got that off my chest.  Have a good week.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reflections & Perceptions

We tell ourselves stories all the time.  Is your story that you're not very creative? Or is your story that you are?

Someone recently told me that I must be "very creative".  I felt flattered, but asked, why? I don't feel especially creative.  I don't get up in the morning and think, "the muse is strong in me today..."  Mostly, I muck about with coloured bits and pieces, and do a bit of knitting or sewing, and play the piano (middling badly).

Turns out, my friend thinks I'm creative because I have crayons, building blocks, a piano and other craft items at my home. I thanked my friend for what was clearly a compliment. But, in a way, she has it almost exactly the wrong way around.

It's not because I'm "a creative person" that I have toys and a piano and craft materials at my home. Rather, I play with toys and music and craft materials because I want to become a creative person.  Our society's view of creativity (and talent, for that matter) is a bit like looking at a photo of someone gazing at their reflection in a mirror, and not being sure which is which.

I'm always intrigued by perception:  it can be both wonderful and disconcerting, or upsetting and disconcerting, to be presented with another person's opinion.  Thank goodness I'm over 40, I find that others' opinions no longer rock my self-perception the way they would have when I was younger.

On another occasion, recently, my husband and I were complimented for our creative courage, in starting our business.  The person who made the comment noted how (comparatively) young we were.  This made us laugh, privately, because at the time it was pretty clear most of our friends and loved ones thought we were nuts. We also recognise that being fairly young and with no dependents, we were in a good position to take a risk. 

Rather than congratulating myself on my entrepreneurial drive, I've spent most of the last decade feeling a wee bit ashamed that I couldn't "hack it" in the corporate world.  Which perception is true?  Possibly both of them, possibly neither.  

20:20 hindsight is certainly a marvellous thing.  It colours what happened.  If we had started our business, and then failed (as so many terrific, talented people do) then I suppose we would now be viewed (and view ourselves) as failed business people.  I doubt most people would praise our courage if that were the case, is it somehow less courageous to fail? Tthe amount of courage required in that moment of choice has not changed - it's safely locked in that past moment and is not available to be changed.  The only thing that has changed is the outcome.

So if you want to be creative, then you must create.  And, at the same time, let go of the need for others' to perceive your efforts as 'art' or 'creativity', and even let go of knowing what the outcome will be. If you continue mucking around for long enough, someone will notice. Most important of all, maybe you'll notice.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Limits of Possibility

I'm learning a bit about the limits of possibility, just now.  I'm learning that some limits are reached more quickly than I'd like.  I'm learning that some limits are further away than I had imagined.

It's definitely forcing me to be more creative.

I'm focussing my music teaching on short courses and workshops.  As of today, I no longer offer regular, weekly lessons: which is a pretty radical departure for a suburban music teacher.  In finding a way to work that suit my constitution - think educational 'sprinter', rather than 'marathon runner' - I am also finding ways to work that create a niche market for my business.

Some choices don't seem to be very choice.  For a while there, I thought I'd either be giving up my day job completely - which made me miserable - or keep doing it and regularly make myself sick - which made me miserable.  I felt like I'd been smacked up the side of the head by the Limit of the Possible.  So I started wondering:  is it really so black and white?  It's true you can't be a little bit dead or a little bit pregnant, but everything else is up for grabs.

There are some certainties. My bank would like us to pay the mortgage, and since my husband already works hard enough already, there is a magic number I need to earn.  The other certainty is that sooner or later I'll have a bad migraine and need to take a day (or 3) off work.

After that, what if?  What if it were possible to have my cake, and eat it too?  What if I could teach everything I'm passionate about, but only sometimes? What if I had time to pursue other interests and skills? What if I want to stay home some days?  What if sometimes I like to work in the morning, and sometimes the evening?  What if I like to take regular breaks during my work day? What if I want to travel?

Asking the questions, led me to answers.  Some I liked, some I didn't.  So I asked more questions.

One question was, would I like to dip a toe back into my old work life? Is it possible to do a bit of telecommuting? No sooner did I ask this, than I was offered some freelance writing and editing from someone I used to work with.  It's demanding, but interesting, and its intermittent - that suits me just fine.  Even a few weeks earlier, I would have said, "No thanks" when this opportunity came up. I wouldn't have had the time.

I've been asked to run some Workshops overseas, too.  (Oooerr, let me think about that one.)

Six months ago, I had no idea this was where I would be.

I was at a party on the weekend, and someone - inevitably - asked me about work.  I told them roughly what I am up to, and they said, "It must be nice to be so creative and flexible.  It sounds great." 

Wow.  I had that moment where my life, which mostly seems muddled and ordinary to me, seemed enviable and exciting, seen through someone else's eyes.  Which it is:  ordinary and exciting, boring and enviable, muddled and planned.  Pretty much like yours is.

The limits of what's possible are usually a lot further out than our first thoughts tell us they are.  So keep looking, and keep asking questions.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Music Lessons: too much & not enough

Modern instrumental lessons take people too far, and not far enough.

They're geared to turn six year olds into professional musicians by around 22.  

The usual path is by private musics lessons after school or by being pulled out of class. This requires discipline, with a minimum of 20 minutes daily practice (at the beginning) going up to 90 minutes+ daily to pass a higher exam.  That lasts for around 12 years till you finish secondary school.  You might also be in a band or an orchestra.  At 18, you go off to the Conservatory of Music for an undergraduate degree in performance.  The people I know completing performance degrees play for a minimum of four hours daily, and up to eight hours daily.

This is necessary because, for the past couple of hundred years, musicians and composers have been pushing the boundaries of human limitation in much the same way that athletes have. Lots of people can run a 4 minute mile nowadays, but that doesn't mean you'll quality for the Olympics, let alone win anything.  It's similar in the worlds of Ballet and Opera.  Everybody has to be better, today, than almost anybody could be 50 or 100 years ago.

It's bad enough that people emerge from such an education, only to find that there aren't enough jobs, and are branded failures for being technically more proficient than many of their teachers.  I have met people sent away by their music teacher because they're deemed not talented enough, or not disciplined enough to bother with.  At the age of 8!

Where is the place of the amateur musician?  The musician who plays for love.  Who wants to grow and develop in skill, but not slave away in a vocational sense?  Such an amateur is often graciously "allowed" to continue with lessons, usually in the "appreciation" or "leisure" stream. Well and good.  (This stream attracts the same prestige for the teacher as Remedial Mathematics does when compared to Calculus.)

I hope that such amateurs are not always treated as second class citizens who have failed to make the grade, because without them, playing music - not just listening to it - will become as esoteric as singing opera.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Internal & External Motivation

My bout of persistent low-level ill health continued throughout March.  It was a good excuse for not posting - in that I am not making it up, I wasn't in a bar drinking.  So, poor me.  Let's move on.

I find it interesting that I am able to meet "real" deadlines (ie. external focus) because once I promise to do something for someone I hate to disappoint. Which I guess means that I fear the consequences. Yet a deadline that involves and impacts only me (ie. internal focus) is more-or-less optional.  There are no consequences, other than a mildly corrosive sense of shame.

I don't think I'm alone in this, either.

We're a lot more externally motivated than we are internally motivated, certainly more than we think we are.

And it is odd, if you think about it.  It's ok to lie to, and cheat myself but not other people? It's "only" me that is being disappointed, so that's ok?

It also begs the existential question of my cyber-readers.  Does this mean I have failed to truly perceive you as "real"? In the nature of the blogosphere, the consequences of failure to post are invisible, and often minimal.  No-one wrote to say, "where's the post you promised us, loser?" For which I am, on the whole, grateful.

Perhaps you need to comment more...  Or send chocolate...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Do I like this music or do I appreciate it?

Some music I like.  Some music I love.  Some music I appreciate.  And some music, none of the above.

No one can tell us we're wrong to like (or dislike) a piece of music.  They can disagree, but they are inaccurate if they say our opinion is wrong.

I have an appreciation for some music which I seldom choose to listen to, and probably will never put on my iPod playlist.  Yet when I do hear it, I might be struck by its beauty, or its complexity or its catchiness or something else.  I might think the composer is a terribly clever individual, if only for catching a moment of the zeitgeist and setting it to a 1-4-5 chord progression!

It's interesting to ask yourself why you do (or don't) like a particular piece of music.

I like some music because it's relaxing.  A bit of light classical, mainstream jazz or blues, middle of the road acoustic pop/rock.

I like some music because it creates a mood of formality, expectation etc. If you go to a cocktail party, its always good to hear some upbeat music that people can talk over to get the party going.  Some 50s swing or solo guitar or piano-bar style piano, maybe.  If you go to a wedding, you know when the bride is coming down the aisle, because there will be appropriate music.

I like some music because it motivates me and makes manual tasks go faster. Try doing the housework to 50s rock'n'roll.

I like some music because I understand it, I have some grasp of what is happening and what the composer's intention was.  There is an extra level of satisfaction in listening to such music.

I like some music because its demanding and hard - I don't understand it, and I have to work to appreciate it.  I find music in this category takes all my attention - its not background music, and to enjoy it I have to really listen.  Ravel's trios for violin, cello and piano fell into this category for me.  So does some experimental jazz. 

I like some music because it makes me daydream or see colours or patterns.

I like some music because it reminds me of a particular memory or time in my life.  Cliff Richard's Wired for Sound will always remind me of a beach trip in 1981.  Don Henley's Boys of Summer and Pat Benatar's We Belong were the summer anthems of 1984.

I like some music because it makes me feel part of group. Football theme songs, school songs, and Men at Work's I come from a land Downunder fall into this category.

I may hate some music because of any or all of the above reasons too.  

The main reason I grow to hate a particular piece of music is its tendency to become "earworm" - the song you can't get out of your head, no matter how hard you try.  Into this category fall all the humorous songs of Monty Python, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack and more recently, anything by Katy Perry.

So the next time you hear a piece of music, and think, "I don't like that..." see if you can find a way to appreciate it -- or at least appreciate what it is you don't like.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I have seen the future... on Top Gear of all things!

Just watched Top Gear and saw a feature on the new Honda electric car, the FCX Clarity.


It's only available in California so far, but it's going well (according to Top Gear).  This car offers a big improvement because it doesn't run on a battery.  Here in Australia, that would most likely mean we'd be burning brown coal for our electricity, which is not a great improvement (maybe not an improvement at all?) on petroleum.  In the UK, they would be using nuclear energy (umm...).

It's an ordinary Honda.  But it runs on hydrogen and the only by product is H2O (water).

What struck me is that this will cause a minimum of social disruption:  petrol stations will gradually change over to be hydrogen & petrol stations, and apart from that nothing much will change.  That reduces buyer resistance.  That reduces commercial resistance.

Sometimes human ingenuity just makes me hopeful for the future, instead of afraid.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paying Attention

The gift of attention is a precious gift.  

We all enjoy being with someone who "gets" us, who is easy to talk to because we know they are really listening, who knows all our faults and likes us faulty as we are. Such people seem to see us for who we *really* are.  

Love without attention is like planting a garden and then forgetting to water it.  

We also know the perils of too much of the wrong sort of attention.  There is an attention that sees without joy: that always sees our flaws, our mishaps and the bits that could do with some improving.  It might love us in spite of our faults, but it almost feels like we're loved out of duty, and in spite of our good points too.

Love with too much negative attention is like having a garden, but only seeing the weeds - and even when the garden is weeded and perfect, bewailing the fact that the weeds will just come back!

So how do we develop the right sort of attention?  How do we get better at noticing?

There are two games I like to use.  The first one is a well-known concept of Mindfulness and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  I just named it and turned it into a game. The second game I came up with all on my lonesome.  

Bear in mind, I'm not clinically trained, I'm just an opinionated childless woman, so use these games at your own risk.

Game One - Notice, Notice, Notice

This game, based on Mindfulness, is about direct experience.  Its allowing ourselves to be open to what is happening, to just notice it and try not to understand, judge or change it.  This takes practice.  

In relation to other people, it is usually more helpful to focus on the person rather than on what you're feeling yourself.  The next time you're with a loved one - a partner, parent, child or friend - spend some time just noticing everything you can about them.  (But don't choose a moment when the other person is trying to tell you something important, or not until you've had lots of practice...)

Use all your senses to Notice, Notice, Notice - what do you see?  what do you hear? what do you smell? what do you feel? and (if appropriate), what do you taste?  

Spend some time going into lots of detail.  If you see that your friend's hair is brown, what colour brown? Is it all one shade? What is its texture? Does it look different from the last time you saw it? Has she had a haircut?

As you focus on the other person, you'll probably get caught up in your own feelings about that person.  Note the feeling that arises in you, but get back to the actual experience of the other person.  So, if you're noticing your baby's soft blond hair, and thinking of how much you love to stroke it, that's fine, but move back to noticing your baby rather than staying with your feelings about your baby.

Game Two - Opinion Origami

The second is to think of opinions (or even judgements) you have about someone, and try to unfold how you came by them, then try to fold them up in a different pattern (hence origami). This works better with positive or neutral opinions than negative ones - negative opinions don't need reinforcing and you probably won't change them.

For example, you might feel that your niece (or brother/sister/nephew/friend) is keen on football.  That may be positive or neutral.  Ask yourself: why do you feel that?  Is it because she often wears team-branded clothing? Is it because she carries football swap cards everywhere?  It is because she talks to you almost exclusively about football when you meet?  

Try to include as much detail as possible.  You might consider how her eyes light up when you bought her a set of football swap cards as a treat.  Or how her voice gets a note of excitement when she is telling you about how she did a deal with a school friend for a rare card last week.

You will end up with a lot of information.  Now your job is to put that information together in a different way, so you end up with an alternative opinion about your niece. (The alternative opinion may or may not be true, that's not important.  It is important that you consider it.)

Maybe your niece is not interested in football, per se, just in football swap cards.  Swap cards may be the latest trend at her school.  The team-branded clothing may be a gift, or perhaps they're hand-me-downs.  Or perhaps she wears them for protective colouration, because they make life at school easier.  Perhaps she wears them to annoy her brother who supports a different team.  Perhaps she talks to you about football because that's what YOU are interested in, and she doesn't know what else to talk to you about.

At the end of Opinion Origami, you may not change your opinion, but isn't your experience of your niece richer?  You've called up memories that are visual, aural and tactile.  The next time you meet her, you're likely to regard her with a kind of wondering curiosity - partly you're testing out your opinions, and partly she is just more interesting now you've spent some quality attention on her!

This game also works well on strangers on public transport, or people at cocktail parties.  In which case I call it the Sherlock Holmes game.

Try one or both of these games this week - and do let me know how it went for you!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

'Good' or 'Adult Convenient'?

Were you a good child?  Do you have a good child?  What does that mean, anyway?

During my years working with families, I was fascinated by how often good came up. Babies come into the world and are immediately either good feeders and good sleepers (or not). I never heard an adult call a child bad, we don't say, "He's a really bad sleeper," but instead, "You know, he hardly ever sleeps".

Shortly afterward, the child will be good with new foods (or a picky eater), a good walker or talker (or else 'not walking/talking yet'), and good with strangers (or 'shy').  

If adults want a child to be quiet, stay put and keep its hands to itself, they ask it to be good.

This good thing is hard on adults who, deep down, feel the child they are with is not being good.  I say, "You know, there's not much moral dimension to behaviour in the under 3s, and none at all in the under 2s.  It's probably easier to think of good as adult convenient. If a child is not in-conveniencing the adults in its vicinity, it is called a good child.

I don't think it's possible for a small child to be bad, in the sense of making a moral choice with an understanding of the implications.  In fact most small children aren't thinking about the people around them much at all, they're just reacting to their own experience and needs. 

An adult convenient child will not just behave in a way that makes life easier for the adults around it, it will behave in such a way as to reflect glory onto them.  

An adult convenient child will happily interact with paid carers, teachers, medical staff and other children.  An adult convenient child will joyfully bang on a child-safe instrument when offered.  An adult convenient child will meet, or preferably exceed, any developmental milestone available. An adult convenient child never makes noise in banks or cafes.

Yes, that's right, the perfect good child - the perfect adult convenient child - is not really a child at all!  It is a mechanized doll.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Encouraging whining?

Ok, maybe it's the heat, but I detect an upswing in public tolerance - even encouragement - of whining.  So I'm going to have a whine myself, about that.

For the past week Melbourne has sweltered in record heat. (For my northern hemisphere readers it was 111'F [44'C] by day, and a balmy 92'F [31'C] overnight, if we were lucky.) The rail system broke down - the rails buckled in the heat.  There were bush fires. There were power outages, as our air-conditioning overloaded the power grid.  And the drought meant we were denied even the comfort of a long, cold shower if we had any environmental sensibility at all.

The newspapers had a field day: news-hounds haunted suburban train stations where commuters were stranded, inviting hot, tired, frustrated people to let 'er rip.  And they did. O how they did!

Did the whining make anybody baking on a platform feel better?  I don't think so.  Playing the blame game gets most people's blood pressure up.  It's always someone else's fault.  Encourage whining in a group situation, and you're well on the way to creating a mob.

Did reading the whining make any of the rest of us feel better? I noticed that in the many column inches of rhetoric and whining, what was absent was a constructive suggestions for a solution.  Apart from, "someone (else) should do something".

Yes, I agree the government should probably have worked out by now that a growing population will put pressure on infrastructure.  No, I don't agree that the government ought to have forseen a once-in-a-century heat-wave.  Can you imagine the public response had our government said, "We're putting taxes up because we want to install super-duper rails that will withstand extreme tempreratures"?

I see that it is enormously irritating that one's local train line has become unreliable.  I don't see why individuals haven't done more to improve their own situation.  Work from home, car pool, taxi pool with other stranded travellers, catch a bus or drive to another, more reliable train line, take your own water/food/umbrella for long waits - all these are possible part-solutions.

Not much space was granted to those who said, "Yep, there are problems with public transport, but really this weather is unusual and the government doesn't control that."  

None at all was granted to honouring those who had to work outside (or inside without air-conditioning) through it all - fire fighters excepted. I've watched my postman toiling up the hill on his bicycle every day, and I question whether he ought to be allowed to work in such extreme conditions.  No-one seems to have thanked the rail workers who walked ahead of the trains pouring water on the tracks. Noone has thanked the station staff who have continued to come to work to be yelled at for situations well beyond their control (and pay rate).

It's time for a stiff-upper lip, people.  Australians traditionally mocked the "whingeing" Poms, but now we're surpassing that stereotype. If there's something useful you can do, do it.  If there's something helpful you can say, then say it. If not, don't whine about.

On which note, I'll take my own advice and stop.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why slow isn't

Fast.  It's a word that defines the early 21st century.  We want things yesterday.  We want to squeeze more and more into our day, our week, our lives.  We want to be faster at doing things. We want the things we want to arrive quicker.

Other than the slow food movement, there's not much we want to slow down except our Summer Holiday.  Or the treadmill at the gym if we get a bit over-excited.

I sat down recently to plan what I want to achieve with 2009.  I started with looking at what I have achieved over the past 3 years.  I chewed my pencil for a while on that one.  I have achieved a fair bit, in fact, but a lot of it has passed in a blur.

According to Daniel Schachter, in his book The Seven Sins of Memory, one of the reasons we don't remember stuff is we don't notice it in the first place.  Things we haven't noticed don't get stored in our memory. The classic example of this is not remembering where we put down our keys/glasses/wallet.

A lot of my achievements of 2005-2008 turned out to be not-very-memorable.  Which is a shame, because I lose both the joy in doing worthwhile things, and in remembering I have done worthwhile things.  What if the most memorable aspect of 2007 turned out to be that I couldn't remember much about it? I remember a couple of big "chunks" of effort, and the occasional drama, not the daily things that make up most of my year.  I don't remember myself quietly achieving what I set out to do.

We're in love with the heroic. We want to throw a big effort at something - once - and have it sorted thereafter. This explains our ambivalent relationships with dieting, domestic tasks, home renovation, and learning new skills (among other things).  None of these things respond well to a once-and-for-all, speed-based approach.

New skills require frequent practice, and sleep in between.  It's during sleep that our brains "bed down" the new information.  If you are learning something new, have a nap or leave the next bit to the next day and your brain will retain what you've learned better.  It's all part of paying attention in the first place.

Music Logic (tm), the music teaching method I use, says that "Slow is Fast".  It's one of those zen-like sayings that make some people feel impatient. Experience has shown me if I slow down, pay attention, and tackle one thing at a time, and aim to do some work every day, I will make progress.  Progress that's actually 'fast' compared to my other strategy of throwing a large chunk of time at a task, but not thinking much about what I'm doing, then abandoning it in frustration, avoiding it for a day, or three (after all, I just 'wasted' 2 hours on it yesterday and didn't get anywhere much), then chucking a wobbly after a couple of weeks of that, and giving up.  Or just forgetting to ever go back and finish it, because I'm caught up with something else now.

So I vote to slow down (a bit).  When I slow down and notice what is happening while it's happening - rather than chewing my pencil later, or relying on my iPhotos, my iCal and my blog to act as external hard drives. I will achieve my goals.  I might even enjoy the journey.  I will be more aware of my accomplishments.  I will get more satisfaction out of my accomplishments.

And that's why, sometimes slow isn't.

My thanks to John Barton, founder of the Music Logic (tm) method, who introduced me to the concepts 'slow is fast' and 'bite sized pieces'.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In praise of personal training

These days I have a Personal Trainer. Not because I'm 41, or not directly, but because I was injured in a horseriding accident, and needed help to rehabilitate myself. (One of my first physiotherapists at the hospital told me that as I was "relatively young" I was likely to make a good recovery. I replied that you should never call any woman of 40 'relatively young' even if that's the medically correct category.)

I had a lot of preconceived notions about what personal training would be, based mostly on television: buff, buzz cut, brash young men yelling at a group of 'fatties' and making them cry and run obstacle courses.  So I approached my personal training in a penitential spirit of "grin and bear it".  But it's not like television at all.

You begin with a discussion of your personal goals.

Personal trainers can provide external motivation when yours is lacking, that is one of their functions, but not the most important and certainly not the only one. My personal trainer spends more time stopping me before I hurt myself, than he does egging me on to do "just 10 more".  I've also heard, through the gym grapevine, that paying a trainer to provide all the motivation doesn't work - if you're really unmotivated, you'll just skip sessions and then decide that a personal trainer is "just a waste of money, it did nothing". 

While "lose some weight" probably does head the list for many of us, and "get a six pack" has been heard, the reasons people choose to get personal training varies as much as they do. Sportspeople often need to rehabilitate after injury, or develop a particular muscle group in order to improve their performance. My motivation was to get my right arm as strong as my left, and to increase my general fitness (cardio-vascular, strength and flexibility).

A personal trainer is above all an expert in the function of your muscles and skeleton, and in training them to perform better.  If you had a tricky tax question, you'd go to the accountant with it, even if you are able to navigate your way around a basic tax return.  When the same thing happens with our bodies, we resist the idea.  

When it comes to exercise we think we know what to do.  Which is odd, as visual evidence on a stroll down the street tells me that most of us don't!  We attribute our lack of physical fitness solely to a lack of activity - when in fact many people who do lots of physical exercise still aren't very fit overall.

Some people who go to the gym are wasting their time.  In some cases, they're actually doing themselves harm.  Doing the wrong exercise is either pointless or counter-productive. You need to do the correct exercise, and do it correctly to get much benefit. So even if you can do a hundred ab crunches per day, there's no guarantee that that exercise will get you to your goal.

It turns out that choosing the "right" exercises for my needs is complex and changes regularly. My personal trainer adapts as my body adapts.  He keeps an eagle eye on my muscles as I work - which is quite intimidating to start with, most of us aren't used to people openly staring at our bodies - and then suggests new things.  I can give my all, knowing that he won't let me overdo it.  We experiment together, with him asking a lot of questions about what I'm experiencing.

Is it working? It's early days. So far I've gained in strength and flexibility, and my overall health has improved by doing regular exercise.  I heartily recommend personal training to anyone who has a specific fitness goal.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Something Bad Might Happen: Anxiety vs Fear

What's the difference between fear and anxiety?  Why should you care?

I think most of us in the 21st century are getting confused between the two.  With so much information available to us - in fact, thrust upon us - our brains can overload trying to protect us.

Having a paranoid brain was likely a good survival trait when we were living on the savannah with lots of meat-loving predators about, and a host of attractive red berries that could give you more than just a tummy-ache if you ate them.  In a modern city, in the midst of a global cyber-village, the same paranoia can seriously diminish your joy in life.

I read a number of different definitions in articles online. They seemed too limited in defnition or too technical (trying to define different brain chemicals!) to me. So I offer this handy differential guide, with the caveat that I'm not a trained psychologist, just an opinionated childless woman, who might have a weenie bit of an issue with anxiety at times.

Fear is specific, it has an object, a limited duration, it's motivating and it can be satisfied.
  • Fear is specific:  you know what - exactly - you are afraid of, whether it is the spider on your dashboard, or failing your next test.
  • Fear has an object:  there is a basis, a reason for your fear - you fear this spider because it is about to jump on you and it has a red stripe on its back, or because you have a spider phobia. You fear failing your next test because you know you haven't studied all the relevant material.
  • Fear has a limited duration:  you are afraid while the thing you fear is around or in potential.  Even arachnaphobics don't spend all their time thinking about spiders. (Quite the reverse, I suspect.)  If you fear failing this test, taking the test will resolve the fear one way or another. You won't continue to be afraid of failing after the test results are posted.
  • Fear is motivating:  it gets us moving and doing.  Fight or flight.  We run away from spiders, or hit them with the broom from 5ft away.  We do extra study for the test, or become busy cleaning our desk/office/house as an avoidance strategy.
  • Fear can be satisfied: the fear goes away - either because we found a way to make ourselves less afraid, or because the moment is passed and the fear goes with it.  So you ran away from the spider and your fear ebbed.  Or you studied for the test and your fear ebbed.  You don't continue to be afraid after the source of your fears is removed.
Anxiety is pervasive, it is generalised, it is enduring, it is never satisfied, and it is dis-motivating.
  • Anxiety is pervasive: we don't need a reason to be anxious.  Or we can find every reason to be anxious.
  • Anxiety is generalised: we're anxious about "failing", not merely this test.  Or of "being unloveable" rather than that this person no longer loves us.
  • Anxiety is enduring: we can temporarily ease this particular anxiety, but another one will pop right up to take its place.  Or we'll just continue to be anxious about this particular thing long after its use-by date.
  • Anxiety is never satisfied:  we can study as hard and as long as we like.  We can ace as many tests as we like, and anxiety will still whisper that we're going to fail.
  • Anxiety is dis-motivating:  anxiety encourages us to stay stuck.  It tells us to NOT do things. It says "something bad might happen". With its endless litany of what could go wrong, it suggests that sitting here frozen is the best option available.
Fear deserves our respect.  We can and should do a 'risk assessment' and then we can either run away or feel the fear and do it anyway.

Anxiety doesn't deserve much respect*. It has a limited usefulness, in small doses it can get our strategic thinking going.  Anxiety always sees the negative.  Sometimes it does show us something we're not afraid of, but maybe we should be!

When you hear the voice in your head that says, "This might not be a good idea...", ask it for specifics, "Oh yeah? Why not?"  

If the answer is, "Something... something baaaad might happen..." you're probably dealing with anxiety.  

If the answer is, "If your hand shakes at all while throwing that dart, you'll impale the lady in blue who is standing too close to the dartboard," then you might want to listen.

*I'm not talking about anxiety disorders here.  Those deserve respect, as do the people suffering through them.  I'm just talking about garden-variety 21st century anxiety.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Well, that was my shortest New Year's Resolution ever!  My apologies to you for missing my first deadline.  (I guess the editors of the TLS and the NYT won't be calling after all.)

The best way to overcome a fear of failure is to "fail early and fail well", so they say.  Having missed my first deadline, I have done that, and now have no reason to miss any others throughout the year.

In retrospect, my birthday was not the most auspicious day for writing an article - even a short one! Between the well-wishers, the partying, and the search for a gift for my twin (whose birthday it was too, naturally) I didn't leave enough time.

What I won't do, is say, "Oh look, you've failed.  You mucked it up.  Why did you even begin to think you could do this?"  I don't know about you, but that's the little voice of criticism that whispers in my ear any time I do something new.  I know it's not just me, because many of my students suffer from this nasty little internal voice too.

Whenever we start something new, we face a barrage (well, a trickle, at least) of nay-sayers. We're too old, too young, too busy, to immature, too flighty, too ambitious, too over-confident, too lazy, or too thick to succeed in our new enterprise.  Sometimes the nay-saying is from our nearest and dearest, and is done out of love and concern.  Our loved-ones don't want to see us hurt.  Most of the negative vibes come from inside ourselves.

It can be very liberating to keep going in spite of this.  Take stock of the risks, decide if it is worth it, then try.  I don't like the phrase, "Failure is not an option".  In most of everyday life, that doesn't come up.  Being willing to fail is the only way to get from here to there.

Beyond failure, when it comes to creative endeavours, we have to be willing to be average... or even 'no good'... at something.  Before good art or craft (music, writing, painting, woodwork, you name it) there is always a stage of bad art.  Sometimes that is the highest stage we'll get to.  For myself, I would rather make 'bad' art with joy than no art at all.

So, as we emerge into 2009, my question is, what would you do if you were willing to fail or be "no good" at it?

Let's all get cracking.